Mathematician Sinclair Dane and a small group of social media marketers offer a contest to win a billion dollars if anyone can pick all the winners in the annual NCAA basketball tournament. They know that 70 million people in the US try their hand at picking all the winners by filling out a bracket, in office pools, at their gym and other places.
If a decent fraction of these 70 million pay a $2 entry fee to enter the contest, they will have a very nice payday. The fact that they don’t have a billion dollars to pay a winner does not worry them. The odds against perfection are 9.2 quintillion to one.
But disaster looms. With three games to go, someone has a perfect bracket. Will Sinclair go to jail for fraud? There will be winners and losers.
The Second Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played is a baseball story and a soldier-come-home-from-war story. It is my father’s story. Crafted from 100 letters he wrote from World War II, and my childhood memories, the book tells the story of what he did when, as one of the fortunate, he made it home safely from war. Then he organized a pickup baseball game for boys, aged 10-14, and the excitement from this game led to the founding of the local little league team. That game was the “second greatest baseball game ever played.”
What was the first? You’ll have to read the book.
I retired from the profession of psychiatry five years ago to commit full time to writing. I am working on several writing projects, one of which is to tell some stories about my 40 years in psychiatric practice.
My motivation? I think I have stories worth telling about people struggling with mental challenges, and about those who try to help them. (We’ll put the shameless commerce motivation aside for now.)
There is, of course, a big problem here: confidentiality. How do I tell these stories without betraying patient trust or otherwise offend members of my profession?
What I would like to do is simply tell stories, without comment or “message” about the experiences described. I’m not interested in writing a tell-all or call for reform. I think all families and all professions have about the same percentage of saints and sinners, heroes and scoundrels. Nevertheless, some people may be offended at how they are portrayed.
I’m not writing clinically, so there must be some sort of context for the stories to be informative and/or entertaining to a general audience. (Oops, there’s that self-serving appeal to a broad readership.)
Thinking practically, I have to decide several things, the first being point of view. The obvious choice is to use first person, with me telling the story and offering commentary. This sounds like memoir. The best definition of memoir I have heard is “history through one person’s eyes.” That’s what I want to do.
Alternatively, I could use the stories as inspiration for a fiction novel, and drastically disguise people and places, writing in third person. Then I could just make up stuff. Or I could just wait until all the people in the stories are dead, including me, before having it published. (Where’s the reward in that?)
I’d like to hear from others who have written about their lives and the lives of those close to them. How does this writer tell the truth, through my eyes, and not “betray” someone, or get myself into a lot of trouble?
Here’s a link to an article that helped me write this blog: https://www.evanmarshallagency.com/memoir-or-novel-how-to-decide
Maybe fifteen years ago, your favorite uncle asked if he could list you as one possible executor of his will. He was widowed with no kids, still relatively young and healthy, and you really liked him. Sure.
Then he died, and you get the call. It’s not a convenient time in your life to do this. Would it ever be a good time? You feel the anxiety rising.
Calm down. With the internet and a basic calculator, you can do this.
I went through a version of this with the death of my brother. Even with no legal training I was able to get it done because I found the right people and resources to help me.
Your first task is to become legally qualified as “executor” or “representative.” In North Carolina this happens at the county Clerk of Court, Estates Division. The staff of the Estates Division is your first helper, and your most important one. At this office you will take a series of steps to be granted authority to take actions, and assume responsibilities, according to the will.
At this point you gain access to the decedent’s living space, financial papers, bank accounts, and perhaps computer programs and accounts. You may have to organize funeral and burial events, if there are no other relatives who step up. You will create an inventory of assets.
Do you need a lawyer? Please resist the temptation to go to an attorney and dump it all on his/her desk. The estate may not have money to pay this expense.
I used an attorney for a few questions. I spent less than one tenth of one percent of the value of the estate on legal fees. If you need legal advice, ask for an hourly-rate consultation from an attorney well versed in estate law.
Key advice: throw almost nothing away. Don’t keep old paid water bills from twenty years ago. Keep recent bank statements and things such as car titles and home-owners insurance papers.
Big tip: at this point, get super organized. Depending on the volume of personal papers, dedicate a three-drawer file cabinet to organize the things you think you need. Avoid messy stacks of paper. If you are unsure about what to keep, get some cardboard boxes and dump the questionable stuff there for sorting later. Eventually, the really vital things should fit in a three-ring binder.
If the Clerk’s staff is your first ally, a bank is the next. You may need to create an estate bank account to pay debts, consolidate various sources of money, including refunds from cancelled newspapers, internet/tv providers, possible tax refunds, and other sources. The bank knows about other things such as the need for an estate tax ID number.
You may have to file the decedent’s last tax return. This may represent a refund or a debt. I found another ally in the man who filed my brother’s returns in the past.
Then there is the matter of the heirs. Hopefully, the will is clear about who gets what. If not, the Clerk’s staff can guide you about disbursing assets.
Don’t be surprised at conflict among the heirs. Wills can bring out the worst in good people. Here’s the next tip: read the will carefully, multiple times. Maybe someone thinks the will is not fair. Fixing that isn’t your job.
At this point you are identifying assets and heirs, making decisions about property, and even if it’s going well, you will be stressed. This is taking time out of your life. Here’s another tip: keep a diary. It can be on a yellow pad, but you should record time you spend, any significant travel expenses, conversations with anyone important, and contact information for all relevant parties.
Keeping the diary can help justify your request for a commission for your work. Why not ask for this? You will spend some money as well as your time on this duty.
One last tip about time spent. Likely the process will take over a year. So, set aside structured, dedicated time to work on this. After the initial flurry of activity, a few hours a month should be plenty. Then try to forget about it when you are not working on it.
In summary, this will be stressful. You are entering a new and specialized world, all while grieving your loss. Poking around in the affairs of another can feel awkward and intrusive. But if you find the right allies, get yourself super-organized, and manage your time well, you can do this and feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment.
Are you researching family history? Using DNA for identifying historical origins and making connections to newly discovered relatives? Walking through graveyards and scouring public records? That’s all well and good, but here’s another way: old books.
Old books on shelves or in long unopened boxes? Family Bibles or simply books of other kinds that give you insight into what your ancestors read and perhaps how they thought about life?
I am on an adventure with old family books. I found my grandfather’s well-worn book about the “devil” in high society and the “fashionable” path to sin and damnation. A clear warning that, I think, guided his approach to life and guidance to his ten children. Maybe I’m just asking questions?
I found books on phrenology, owned by a doctor who practiced in the shadow of the civil war, and enlisted the aid of a practicing phrenologist to give his brother a phrenological reading in 1886, documented for posterity.
I found my mother’s first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged. What!? My mother and Ayn Rand?
Check out my YouTube video of that and more.
I recently wrote an Amazon customer review of Writing in Community: Say Goodbye to Writer’s Block and Transform Your Life, by Lucy Adkins and Becky Breed (BQB Publishing, 2013). Their book describes a specific type of writing group, a “generative” group, where certain conditions must be nurtured in order to foster the creative process in the service of inspiration and self-discovery. Think trust and safety. Attend to positive relationships among group members.
My experiences with writing groups have come within a different kind of group, a “critique” style of group, where completed drafts are presented for examination from various viewpoints, from grammar and punctuation to overall story concept. Here I will draw from Lucy and Becky’s excellent advice about their group and offer some ways their wisdom translates to another kind of group.
In forming a critique group, the accepted wisdom is to enlist members with a similar level of writing experience and talent. I think this is not as important as having a set of rules, a structure that all members feel comfortable following. I have benefitted from membership in a group that included members skilled in the technical aspects of writing and others who were great storytellers but considered grammar and punctuation as irritants at best. Each made contributions to my writing.
A complete description of rules is beyond this piece, but two concepts highlight the importance of the way in which members give and receive criticism. One fundamental rule is that criticism is offered as “take it or leave it.” The member receiving input is free to accept or decline. I was in one group where a member walked out in the middle of a session when his suggestions were not applauded as the only way to proceed.
The other vital issue is how one offers criticism. A few examples will suffice as the wrong way to give input: “That whole section is just one big information dump.” “I can give you a few examples of actually good writing so that you can fix that chapter.” And my favorite, “I’m not here to worry about people’s feelings; I’m here to make you a good writer.”
My overall point is that there are commonalities in all types of writing groups that will nurture or kill a group. These similarities are all about respect, trust, and safety. This wisdom also reflects the necessary reality expressed in a recent “motto” of the North Carolina Writers Network: no one writes alone.
Many talented, creative people pursue their art as a hobby. Musicians gather with friends for a Saturday night jam. Hobby poets and painters share their creations with family and friends. Rewarding, but no fame or fortune.
In my distant youth I saw writing as my future profession, but I lost my confidence in that way to earn a living. I went to medical school. I wrote as a hobby.
Retiring from 40 years of psychiatric practice, I opened a bookstore as a path to restoring my identity as “English major.” I ran the bookstore as a hobby, never really embracing a true “business model.” The result was not unexpected: no real money.
My renewed hobby of writing and book store owner succeeded as intended, as hobby. I now kept company with writers and readers, not doctors.
Slowly something changed. I realized I did actually want some recognition for my writing, and hey, wouldn’t it be great if I earned money from it?
I became aware that by keeping writing as a hobby and not expecting money for it was a defense against failure. If I expected no recognition or payment, no pressure. If my writing really isn’t very good, at least few people will see it. Couldn’t I just say that if my writing is worthy, I’ll be discovered some day? Maybe after I’m dead.
I do not like “business.” Actually, I don’t know how to do it. There are people who do. What? I might have to pay them? That will eat up a lot of royalty payments, if there are any.
I glad my grandfather farmer didn’t think that way. I’m sure seeds and fertilizer cost money. And keeping or renting a mule wasn’t free. He learned how to farm from someone.
So now I’m all in, “employed” in the business of writing, with a budget to invest, people to help, learning modern marketing tools. Building an author “brand.” Whatever that is.
Writer’s block is generally used to refer to someone who once used creativity in a productive way but loses the ability to produce new work. The absence of consensus about cause and remedy has emboldened this writer to add to the discussion. I write as a retired psychiatrist now restored to my default identity: English major.
Suggested causes of writer’s block range from the psychoanalytic to cynical dismissals of the condition as a myth. Most common are explanations based on the effects of anxiety and stress, sometimes involving unrealistic demands to produce, sometimes about extraneous pressures.
Some explanations fault the design of the brain. One area of the brain simply can’t function when another is engaged in a certain way. I won’t go into detail here because my medical training tells me such explanations are forced and not compelling.
Lacking consensus, I think there is room for another wrinkle in the fabric. My idea comes from the realization that I have been least productive in my writing during the times in my life when I felt fulfilled and happy in the other dimensions of my life.
A common assumption is that some forms of creativity flow from conflict. A corollary is that good writing needs conflict. So, if one is too “fat and happy”, does this get in the way?
Two examples from my own personal experience. In my thirties, having published nothing, I had reams of notebooks of prose and poetry awaiting discovery and acclaim. Then I graduated from medical training and got a rewarding job, simultaneous with helping bring a daughter into the world. Happy times. Not stress free, but fulfilling. Important doctor and doting dad. I quit writing for a decade.
But unfiltered adoration of a three-year-old for her dad soon enough gives way to teen stuff and soon after that comes FAFSAs, college dorms, and the empty nest. Plenty to write.
More recently, after four self-published novels, one of which won a national indie-book award, I hit another wall. My brother died and I became executor of his very complex and contested estate.
Surprisingly, despite the grief from the loss of my older brother, and the remarkable amount of time required for serving as executor, I found this role fulfilling. I succeeded in an unfamiliar landscape, doing something important for my brother and family. I joined the ranks of the few who can define “Letters Testamentary” and “per stirpes.”
Bestriding this new world, I became measurably puffed up with self-importance. And my blog went dead for a year; I could edit past work but could not find new ideas.
So, if productive creativity lies is some sweet spot mid-way between abject misery and transcendental joy and inner peace, what does that say about how to get beyond writer’s block? The misery part is more easily addressed. From standard stress reduction approaches, through practical writing hygiene suggestions, relief is on the way. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is perhaps the best packaged set of remedies for creativity enhancement.
For the too-much-happiness problem, I think time will take care of that. The Furies are still out there, and we’re all guilty of something, and deserving of their attention.
If you hold a poet in highest esteem, you may attend an open mic and read or recite the poet’s work. If it is music that moves you, and you have some talent, you can “cover” the pieces you value. If you have no talent speak of, you might still become, for a few minutes, a Karaoke King for some unsuspecting captive audience in a public gathering place. How many versions of “Desperado” does the world need.
But how does one honor a writer in a personal way? On July 21st at Wake Forest’s Neck of the Woods Theater, I am going to try something.
The writer is Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Union Soldier and later journalist, critic, cynic, and author of some of the most hauntingly beautiful prose about some of man’s most horrific experiences, those of war and the life of the soldier.
Some of what is written today about war and the soldier, such as the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger, is rediscovered wisdom. Read Junger’s description of the complexity of the homecoming struggles of today’s warrior, then go find the same kind of information in Bierce’s “What I Saw at Shiloh.”
So what am I going to try at the local theater? Much as some today try to “impersonate” Mark Twain, I will appear on stage as the ghost of Ambrose Bierce. My monologue will come directly from his work, as if he were speaking from the spirit world. I have my Union Soldier uniform. I think it is safe to wear the Yankee blue in Wake Forest.
A disclaimer: I am not a military veteran. I make no claim to personal knowledge of war. I try to honor those who have gone to war for me, and I believe that I am honoring others in a small way with this presentation of the work of a largely forgotten voice who spoke of war. Come to the performance on July 21st at the Renaissance Center at 7PM and see for yourself if what I am trying is worthwhile.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.